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Discover Mid-America — April 2005

Pull the plug on a failed project

Spring arriving means that soon the Missouri will get its big gulp, the blast of water that comes as the snow pack in the Rockies thaws. The spring rise will arrive here a little early due to a series of dams upstream. And as that water flows through, a series of human-made, technologically advanced structures will stifle, stopper, calm and control that water — as long as the weather doesn’t interrupt human plans.

The Missouri River looking upstream from Kaw Point Park at the confluence of the Missouri and Kansas rivers in near downtown Kansas City, KS. (photo by Patrick Dobson)

But it does. It always does.

This is why, I argue, that the dams and dikes we are convinced are essential for our lives must be breached.

Those who have never thought of the Missouri River as anything other than a dangerous stream will criticize. Floods! Drought! Lack of barge traffic!

Perhaps, but we will all be better off when we have a free-flowing stream running through our valley. Floods will become less devastating. Water tables will rise. Wildlife will return. Fishing will be unequalled. In short, we return to paradise.

Let me begin my argument with what environmental historian Donald Worster argues in Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West (Pantheon: New York, 1985):

Control of water means control of people. Those entities that control the water control the people who depend on that water — in this case, multinational corporations and their servants, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Interior Department’s Bureau of Reclamation. None of these, including Cargill, ADM, Monsanto, etc., are democratic in their origins or are they democratically inclined. We can’t tell them to walk away or manage the river differently. They will do what returns most profit from an investment of our taxes — profits that have not and will not returned to the national treasury close to what it’s taken to form and manage the river so far.

Rarely does this river see a barge, that water-freight wagon for which men have re-formed this watercourse from a wide, slow-moving, braided stream to a swift canal. The 720-mile long river channelization from just north of Sioux City, SD, to St. Louis, MO, took from 1880 to 1942. The goal was to create a way for water to compete with railroads after rails brought an end to the shallow-draft steamboat — an expensive, unreliable and dangerous way to transport freight, passengers and mail on the river. They built it, and the barges never came.

Robert Kelley Schneiders argues in Unruly River: Two Centuries of Change on the Missouri River (University Press of Kansas: Lawrence, 1995) that the Corps of Engineers’ effort to control the river was for the express purpose of opening it to deep-water barge traffic. Yet, those changes have made the river less amenable to deepwater barge traffic. Despite the argument that barges can transport more, more efficiently than rail, the Missouri along its channelized length is too fast, too narrow, and too untrustworthy to make for reliable, efficient barge business.

Only in times of cheap fuel prices can barges do on the Missouri what rail can do in the valley. And ultimately, rail has now come under heavy competition from trucking, and trucking has also become an adjunct to rail. Railroads are more interested in long-haul transport than in short-stop-and-pickup hauling as what might be found along grain terminals in the valley. Using trucks to get grain to rail has become the standard. So much so that no wheat has been transported along the Missouri since the mid-1980s. A diminished amount of corn, fertilizer and concrete are moving there as well.

A look at the figures tells the story. The Corps of Engineers tracked 3.3 million tons of traffic on the Missouri in 1977, when there was a devastating flood along the lower reaches. It has declined nearly every year since, barely topping 1.1 million last year, mostly concrete.

One might ask what benefit to agriculture Missouri channelization has achieved. Well, none, really. In Missouri, land totals gained from taming the stream don’t equal those inundated by reservoirs in North and South Dakota. In addition, that was, by far, the best agricultural land in those states. Moreover, since much of agriculture in Missouri is now agribusiness — under the control of medium and large corporations, one has to ask if those who lose (anglers, hunters, birders, cities seeking clean water, and those who lose property and life) outweigh those few who win in the scheme to keep the Missouri under control.

Corps’ construction of a narrow channel has made cities and individual developers feel comfortable building in the floodplain. Yet, the Corps has created a more dangerous river than was here before. Revetments, dikes, levees and river straightening have increased the river’s speed. These structures keep the river from spreading easily and shallowly across its plain in times of high water, making floods especially damaging.

In addition, dams upstream allow nutrient-rich silt to settle to the bottom of reservoirs. Farmers have come to rely on synthetic fertilizers, which seep into the water supplies (above and below the ground). Sandbars have become nearly non-existent; and bends that slow the water are straight. Islands have become part of the mainland. All of this has created an environment inhospitable, if not toxic, to numerous avian, the land and aquatic species — species once formed a vast and lucrative network of tourist, angling, birding and hunting resources and can again.

By kicking the Corps and the Bureau of Reclamation out, we take control of our money. We take control of our river, and do with it on the local level what we want. We will not hurt for water — as much will flow then as now, and less devastatingly. The intake structures we have now can easily be reengineered, replaced and paid for in a few years with what the feds have take for the profit of a few. Moreover, the upper basin states will be freed from the political control of the lower basin states, and gain some control over their river, control they have not had since the middle of the 19th century.

It’s a matter of freedom in the long-term. Living with and become part of the environment is far more cost effective than allowing a few hold all the power. The benefits are many. As the spring washes the land clean again, it’s time for a new start. Let’s think about it.

Patrick Dobson is a journalist, poet, and freelance writer and editor based in Kansas City, MO. He publishes and edits the online literary magazine, the poetrysheet. His award-winning columns, editorials, and articles have appeared in PitchWeekly, eKC, and Discover Mid-America. His poetry and short stories have been published in the pages of The Kansas City Star, Review, Friction Magazine, Mid-America Poetry Review, The Same, and Thorny Locust. He is now pursuing a doctorate in history at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Patrick Dobson can be contacted at or

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